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Found Feminism: Blue Plaque Bonanza

2012 December 6

Somewhere in a little seaside town (Hastings) there is a very, very feminist street. Pelham Place, to be precise, with its pretty white fronted houses, looking out towards the sea.

Not a hotbed of radical political lady-times, and yet it’s been home to not one, but two awesome women. Briefly, it was also frequented by our editor Miranda this autumn, so technically that makes it three, and the temptation to create Bad Reputation plaques, possibly as stickers, is actually quite strong.

Anyway, here’s the street…

An English Summer, a sunny day, the blue sky has a handful of white fluffy clouds. To the right is a rusted handrail overlooking a blue green sea. To the left is a gently curving pavement on which a white and cream Georgian style terraced row of houses sits, their rounded balconies facing out to the sea. It has a touch of faded grandeur.

Pelham Place, Hastings. Most feminist street ever?

…and here are the plaques.
Blue circular plaques which read: 'Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon 1827-1891 Educational pioneer and campaigner for women's rights and artist. Lived here 1830-1853. Hastings Borough Council' and 'Muriel Matters-Porter 1877-1969 Adelaide born activist and first woman to "speak" in the House of Commons. Lived in this house 1949-1969'.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, 1827-1891, Educational pioneer and campaigner for women’s rights and artist. Lived here 1830-1853.

Muriel Matters-Porter, 1877-1969, Adelaide born activist and first woman to ‘speak’ in the House of Commons. Lived in this house 1949-1969.

The two women in question, Barbara Bodichon and Muriel Matters, are not only pleasingly alliterative but also both very cool people in their own way.

Barbara was a formidable lady. Born out of wedlock to a reasonably wealthy and very forward-thinking father, she had an “unusual upbringing” by all accounts (well, here’s an account that says that).

Bodichon was an artist who travelled Europe, and she was heavily involved in women’s suffrage. She is credited with helping campaign for the Married Women’s Property Act, a step towards independant financial security for women which allowed them to own and control their own property.

She also set up the English Women’s Journal to discuss issues pertaining to womens’ rights, and founded Girton College, Cambridge.

As an aside, her family is related by marriage to the Bonham Carter family which contains both Florence Nightingale and, eventually, Helena Bonham Carter, a BadRep Towers favourite, so there’s clearly something going on in this family and they deserve watching.

Muriel Matters, meanwhile, was born in Australia, moving to the UK to participate in the suffrage movement, where she became known for being somewhat militant and outrageous in her attempts to gain publicity for the cause (including hiring a dirigible).

She was also a campaigner against slums and poverty and an early teacher of the Montessori Method. She stood as a candidate for the Labour Party in 1924.

Matters lived in the house on Pelham Street, which was a nursing home, until her death, the later part of her life focusing on what is coyly described by Wikipedia as “the local community”, and spending time being a pretty great lady of letters.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to campaign so ardently for change and to see it realised in your lifetime, then to go on and survive through the war, all the way to to the revolutions of the 1960s. It’s only when presented with those dates that I can begin to appreciate the scale and speed of the feminist project, that so much happened within these two overlapping lifetimes. It’s inspirational to think about what could be achieved within our lifetimes.

The two didn’t overlap when they lived at Pelham Place, sadly, and my Google-fu doesn’t reveal any evidence they actually ever met, but that’s certainly a Fantasy Dinner party guest list to think about.

I like the Blue Plaque project. I like any kind of history you can pick up just by looking up whilst you’re walking along. It’s nice to be able to put things in context and to see the past as places with real people rather than objects in a museum.

But this combination in particular strikes a chord with me, possibly because it is so unusual. And it’s the standout element here that makes this a Found Feminism.

Let’s face it, most commemorative plaques are about men – English Heritage is working to tackle this issue – and the coverage of women’s rights is often a late addition to the table. The Pankhursts didn’t get their plaque intil 2006, for example, so to have two together is impressive.

So here’s to Pelham Place, and to Hastings!

  • Found Feminism: an ongoing series of images, videos, photos, comics, posters or excerpts – anything really, which shows feminist ideas at work in the everyday world. What’s brightened your day, or made you stop and think? Share it here, tweet us, or send your finds to [email protected]!
One Response leave one →
  1. February 2, 2013

    Great article, thank you. I didn’t know about Barbara Bodoichon before now, another inspirational Hastings woman. I do know a bit about Muriel Matters though and I know that no. 7 Pelham Crescent wasn’t a nursing home. Muriel did live in a nursing home at the end of her life, it was St Anthony’s care home on West Hill Road, St Leonards. She died on the 17th of November 1969.

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